THE GREENWICH INLAID LINOLEUM COMPANY – take over by Nairn of Kirkaldy

THE GREENWICH INLAID LINOLEUM COMPANY

While the directors at Kirkcaldy could see tangible results of their planning and hard work, some other firms were not so fortunate. One of these was the Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum. Company. This firm had operated profitably for many years; but because of its proximity to Woolwich Arsenal, so many of its workers had taken employment there during the war that it had been forced to dose down altogether. When it started up again its position was difficult. Its sole manufacture was an inlaid linoleum known as “Walton Inlaid”. Since the only linoleum resembling this type made by Michael Nairn and Company was the Super Parquetry, introduced in 1910, in which the sections that composed the design were assembled by hand, it seemed that a fusion of the two companies would be beneficial. On 8th February 1922, a contract was signed and a holding company was formed under the name of Michael Nairn and Greenwich Limited. The Kirkcaldy and Greenwich firms continued to exist as separate manufacturing concerns, and from both their boards were drawn the directors of the new company. Since the Kirkcaldy firm was the controlling member, it was appropriate that Mr. John Nairn should be elected chairman. Sir Michael Nairn, Major Robert Spencer Nairn and Mr. William Black were managing directors, and other directors from the Nairn Company were Mr. John Wallace and Mr. A. P. Peat. Those who had been directors of the Greenwich Company were Mr. A. H. Dewar, Mr. A. S. Thomson and Mr. E. F. Armstrong. Another linoleum to be similarly manufactured was Super Marble, introduced in 1926.

Originally known as The Frederick Walton Mosaic Linoleum Company, the Greenwich firm had been established by Walton at the Victoria Works in Blackwall Lane, East Greenwich, in 1895. The buildings had once belonged to the famous Bessemer steel firm, and they were located near the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, which gave easy access to railways and docks on the north bank of the Thames, and they were less than seven miles from London Bridge. The company owned a wide frontage on the Thames and had two large jetties. Machinery for the manufacture of the Walton Inlaid linoleum was intricate, and Walton had spent many years in perfecting it. The “scrim” method of oxidising oil had been found useless for his new process because it was impossible to exclude all traces of fibre from the linoleum cement. He had spent several years in Brin’s oxygen works in London, and thanks to this valuable experience he was able to perfect a new method—which, with modifications, is still in use.

The oil was allowed to shower down through perforations in the bottom of a tank, and was pumped back to continue the showering process until it began to thicken. It was then passed into another container where it was violently beaten up with flanners into a spray through which air was blown at high pressure—an operation still known as the “smacker” process. The container was heated and cooled down, the temperature being under careful control, and at last the oil was so viscous that it was just able to flow. This oxidised linseed oil, mixed with gum resins, formed linoleum cement to which was added cork-wood fibre and colouring matter. Every minute particle of iron, wood, stone or other foreign matter had to be eliminated because these, like fibre in the cement, would have had an injurious effect on the finely tempered cutting-knives of the machinery. The most important feature in the Walton machine was an immense cylinder with cutting rollers grouped around it. The rollers were fed with sheets of linoleum, each of a different colour, and the knives on the rollers cut out shaped pieces. These could be large or small according to the design, and indeed some were so tiny that sixteen of them would have covered no more than a square inch.

The machine was able to cut out ninety million different pieces in a full working day. By an elaborate device, which involved thousands of little pressers and ejectors, these shaped pieces were deposited on the large cylinder until I ultimately the full pattern had been fitted together like a jig-saw puzzle. The entire patterned sheet was then passed forward by the machine and deposited on a coated web of hessian. After going through a series of heated cylinders, which welded together the pieces and the hessian, they ultimately emerged as inlaid linoleum in its final form. As Walton himself said, “It is a pretty sight to see the various coloured sheets descending, and to watch the cutting-rollers cut out and select and arrange, as though with human intuition, the pieces into their respective order, and to observe the whole pattern develop under one’s eyes with faultless precision.” This machine was nothing less than a miracle of ingenuity.

Frederick Walton continued to experiment, and later he constructed a second machine which was even larger and more elaborate than the first. The great cylinder was eighteen feet in diameter and weighed twenty tons. Six different sheets of linoleum could be fed into it at the same time, each to be cut into large or small pieces and automatically fitted together to complete the pattern. The buildings that housed these two huge machines, with their subsidiary installations, occupied nearly all of the fourteen acres covered by the Victoria Works at East Greenwich, and the total cost of the plant was over half a million sterling.

The acquisition of the Greenwich Works enabled the firm to produce all varieties of inlaid linoleum. At Greenwich, designs with sharply defined straight lines were made by the Walton method, and marble and jaspe effects were produced by newly installed machinery. At Kirkcaldy, more intricate patterns demanding delicate shading were made by the perforated tray system. An important step was the transfer of the sales organisation of all the Greenwich inlaid linoleum to the hands of the Kirkcaldy firm. This made for greater efficiency and was less costly than running two separate sales departments. The fusion of the two companies made for economy in the purchase of raw materials, and they were able to share in the results of research. In January 1923, for the first time for eight years, the Greenwich shareholders received a dividend.

The Kirkcaldy factories were now doing well, and the holding company was able to declare a dividend often per cent, which in the following January was increased to twelve and a half. The next two years were fairly good, and extensions were made at the Greenwich works to deal with the increasing volume of trade. Unfortunately the disruption caused by the General Strike in 1926 and the prolonged coal strike of that year had an unfortunate aftermath throughout the whole country: yet in spite of the fact that it had been a discouraging year for many British industries, the Kirkcaldy factories had been operating successfully, and the profits accruing to Michael Nairn and Greenwich were even more than in the previous twelve months. There was another slight increase in 1927 and yet another in 1928. From the time that the factories at Kirkcaldy had got into full production after the unsettled post-war period, there had been steady progress in output and, given stability in Britain and international harmony, the directors would have been amply justified in anticipating a continued increase in the sales of most of their products both in the home markets and abroad.

A LINK WITH THE PAST

During the decade that followed the end of the 1914-18 War, there were two notable changes in the directorate. Mr. William Black, a son-in-law and for many years an able colleague of Sir Michael Barker Nairn, died in 1922. His fellow directors recorded their “deep appreciation of his experience, ability, judgment and integrity,” and among his legacies was a sum of money to be used for the benefit of any employee of the firm who required a period of convalescence after illness. He had for long been Honorary Secretary of the Linoleum Manufacturers Association, and his knowledge of the industry had been extensive.

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